American Hustle is a delight. It combines a riot of 70s excess with some great performances. But how true to history is it? Rather than the traditional “based on a true story” it begins with words on screen saying cryptically that “some of this actually happened.” This is about right.
The film is based on the real life ‘ABSCAM’ scandal which resulted in a senator, several congressmen and a number of local politicians being convicted of corruption. However, according to Alex von Tunzelmann’s excellent Reel History column, the film departs markedly from the real events in a number of ways.
The characters are markedly different from their real counterparts. They are generally older for starters. And disappointingly, Amy Adams’s character was actually British rather than putting on an English accent as an act.
Perhaps the strangest discrepancy concerns the way the FBI ensnared their targets:
It is true that the FBI set up “fake sheikhs” – agents posing as wealthy Arabs – to con public officials. The price of oil rocketed in the 1970s, notably in 1973 and 1979, owing to the political situation in the Middle East. This made the oil-producing states extremely rich, though the Arab world still appeared mysterious to westerners – meaning it seemed plausible, as in the film, that some Mexican bloke in a dishdasha could pass himself off as an Emirati squillionaire. For once, the truth was even less convincing than fiction. The real FBI didn’t even bother with a Mexican. They used an Irish bloke. He was agent Mike Dennehy, who may not have had strong Arab credentials but perhaps had acting in his blood: he is the brother of Golden Globe and Tony award-winner Brian Dennehy.
There is also a major change to the end of the film. To avoid, spoilers I will not discuss it beyond noting that the reality would not meet Hollywood standards.